There’s a frequently used device in fiction called the MacGuffin. The MacGuffin is a plot element that motivates action, usually an object that the characters spend the majority of their time trying to obtain. It’s a favorite discussion point for Alfred Hitchcock movies and classic Hollywood noir, in general.
In North by Northwest, the MacGuffin is a small Tarascan statue that contains microfilm of classified government documents. In The Maltese Falcon, it’s, well, the Maltese Falcon. But in Debra Granik’s masterful Ozark noir, Winter’s Bone, the MacGuffin is the father of protagonist Ree Dolly (Jennifer Lawrence). So far as we know, Jessup Dolly is a no-account meth dealer, in and out of prison and of little obvious help to Ree, who’s been forced to leave school and raise her two younger siblings. Jessup, or at least all of Jessup, never appears.
In his absence, Jessup epitomizes the role of men in the Dollys’ grim southwestern Missouri community more neatly than any of the men who actually do appear. The men of Winter’s Bone resemble nothing so much as a pack of mangy dogs, grizzled, hairy, and fearsome only because they’re so desperate. Most of them are meth dealers, and most of those are meth heads, even the nice(r) ones.
Nevertheless, Ree has to find her own mutt, if only because he put up the Dollys’ house as collateral the last time he got released on bail. Ree is informed by the local police that the family will lose their house if Jessup fails to show up to his hearing. In other words, unless she’s found her MacGuffin.
Hitchcock was fond of expounding to interviewers and lecture halls on the fundamental pointlessness of the MacGuffin. It’s of course vital to the working of the plot itself, but its specific nature is typically of no consequence. Does anybody really care about what the plans in the statue in North by Northwest actually say? Or what all that gold stuff is in the briefcase in Pulp Fiction?
Similarly, nothing about Jessup—save his very presence—is particularly important to Ree. He could, in theory, do all the things a father should do, like provide food, shelter, and love to his children. But he won’t, and neither do most of the other men in Ree’s town.
Winter’s Bone is a film about what happens when traditional institutions run headlong into the ravages of modernity. Men are therefore still at the top of the food chain, but they can’t feed their families the same way their fathers did. With manufacturing and agriculture a shadow of its former self, meth (either dealing or using) presents itself as the most viable alternative. The once-steady pillars of southern society are transformed into the malnourished wolves we see in Winter’s Bone. Even the good ones, like Ree’s Uncle Teardrop (John Hawkes) intimidate the hell out of those, like Ree, who depend on them.
In Winter’s Bone, the men are the MacGuffin. We want them, we depend on them, but they’re nowhere to be found. This year’s Oscars celebrated kings, technocrats, and dreamweavers over the meth-blighted women and children of Winter’s Bone. Sadly, it’s not the first time they’ve been overlooked.